3 secrets about US business culture you need to know

TheSecret” Culture

There are some aspects of life in the US that often seem weird and inexplicable to non-residents. Why don’t we use the metric system? What’s this tipping stuff? Why is the food so big? Why do we smile so much in business settings? Why do we exaggerate our emotional response to things? (“Wow, that’s amazing!!!). They’re good questions. But there’s a reason for all this bizarre behavior: let’s call it the “secret” culture. The underlying foundation for what makes us American. It’s something all Americans take for granted but that in general international people have no idea about (you can’t fully get it from movies or media.) It’s something all Americans take for granted but that in general international people have no idea about (you can’t fully get it from movies or media.) Your education system didn’t cover it. Language teachers don’t talk about it. It’s mostly not in the university courses you took here in the US. It’s….a secret that international people really have no way of knowing. And that’s understandable. But the problem is, not knowing about this level of culture could impact your ability to succeed here. It’s as if you were running a restaurant but had no idea what the ingredients in the food were or what the customers really liked. How far would that get you?

What I’m talking about is not just culture. It’s the deep culture. Not whether people take their shoes off before they go in the house or what kind of food they eat. I’m talking about what really motivates people. What their true values are. What they care about. What they expect unconsciously. How they communicate. How they make friends and form professional bonds. This is the invisible yet critical layer of culture identified by cross-cultural researchers and scientists. And if you don’t understand it, how can you collaborate with people? Persuade them? Move them to action? Create deeper relationships? It’s not easy. I’d even say, based on my 15 years in this kind of work, that it’s close to impossible. If you don’t know how to leverage this deeper layer of culture, you will struggle. You will not be able to establish the relationships that lead to better outcomes in your professional life. And I don’t want that.

So what I’d like to do in this blog is provide you with 3 CRITICAL components of this “secret” culture that international professionals ignore at their peril.

1.How to Communicate

Communication style: Get to the point and give enough detail. America is a low-context culture. This means we expect that information provided us be detailed, explicit, and well-organized. Not vague. Not implicit with conclusions left up to the listeners. And not beating around the bush. You have to get to the point, be concise and above all, be well-organized. What does “well-organized” mean here ? Well, I’m going to talk about storytelling in a moment, but for now, and for all practical purposes, it means being clear and logical. Set expectations and your intent early on in your discussion or presentation. Give the audience the “what” first and then the “why.” If there’s some context first, make it relatively short and sweet. (It might help to think of it as putting the conclusion first.) Don’t make them sit and try to understand what your purpose is or what you’re talking about. They will get frustrated. And you don’t want them to feel frustrated or to have to try to understand what you’re getting at, believe me. 🙂

2.How to Express and Relate Emotionally

Emotional connections: be vulnerable. Share your story. Let people see what you’re facing. Being vulnerable is not considered a weakness here. It’s considered brave and admirable. In other cultures, it might be interpreted as weak or unprofessional, but that’s typically not the case in the US. Americans believe it humanizes you and makes you relatable to your audience. So relax and let them get a sense of who you are as a human being, not just a “professional” fill-in-the-blank-with-your-occupation.

In addition, it’s ok and even advisable to state directly what your emotional reactions are (here’s a blog I wrote on this topic:https://omnienglishpro.com/one-powerful-easy-way-to-build-rapport-with-your-us-colleagues/). Say things like “that’s great!” “Wow, amazing!” Or “Oh no, that’s not so good, I’m sorry to hear that” if the news or message is negative. Remember, America is a low-context culture. The subtle expression of emotion might be missed, and we might think you are unfeeling or don’t care. (It’s true that some of this is exaggerated, particularly in California, but it is a good rule of thumb if you want to bond with people effectively.) If you do this, Americans will likely feel that you are relatable, present, and engaged.

(Oh and smile more frequently, make eye contact, and have a firm handshake. Americans believe this indicates warmth and trustworthiness.)

3.How to tell a Story

Storytelling. Americans love it. I had a client tell me once that it seems like besides fast food and football, Americans love stories above all else. He said that people in his country are more likely to judge a product or service based on its features and benefits, but Americans revel in the story and the vibe. It’s critical for us. He’s not wrong. If you don’t believe me, I did a quick search on the importance of storytelling in business and came up with some major players weighing in: Forbes, LinkedIn and Fast Company, just for starters.

When giving a presentation, create a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and an end. Be clear about the relevance to the audience’s objectives, values, and desires. Have a great emotional hook and develop it through the course of the presentation. Have a clear purpose, sincere emotional engagement, and a call to action that the listeners or readers can easily grasp. Keep it clear of distracting jargon and most of all, don’t rely on logical persuasion. Logic is limited. Human beings operate on emotion. So move them emotionally and understand the cultural ways of doing this. Remember the old saying, “people shop based on logic, but they buy based on emotion!”

So whether you’re giving a pitch, trying to convince your team of a course of action, persuading a customer, or even trying to land that dream job and talking to the interviewer, if your counterpart is American, understanding these fundamental building blocks of our culture will help. Knowing that Americans eat fast food and love sports is great, but once you understand this “secret” culture, you will open up new doors to success and fulfillment in your professional life here in the US.

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